The A. Nico Habermann Educational Service Award
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)


Margaret 'Meg' Richards
Senior Systems Software Engineer, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation
2016 Awardee

When our own Herb Simon related his parable of the two skilled watchmakers – one who, building watches from a thousand atomic components, grew poorer and eventually failed; the other, creating stable sub-assemblies and treating each watch as the product of assemblies, grew prosperous – he would not have foreseen Arthur Koestler using it as a foundation for a philosophical construct called a holon. A holon is a living fractal; an entity that exists as a self-contained whole with autonomy and self-reliance, simultaneously composed of smaller holons and a part of larger holons. Recursive definitions should have some appeal in this crowd.

We ourselves are holons, not in the Matryoshka doll sense of self-identical fractals, but holons nonetheless. We are an assembly of many individual parts we do not directly control: our hearts, our guts, brains; they are holons of molecules, in turn holons of atoms. It's turtles all the way down. We are also a part of something greater: we are a part of humanity, the mother of all complex holons, and humanity would be fundamentally different and incomplete without our individual contributions.

The holon before you is the product of two amazing parents, Francis and Georgene, seated among you, who raised me and my sister in the belief that advantage in life is also a responsibility to help the less advantaged; that victories are sweeter when celebrated with those who kept you from defeat; and that leadership, compassion, and humility are best taught through demonstration.

I began as a teaching assistant my first year as an undergraduate. I was lucky to discover so early something I enjoy, I do reasonably well, and that allows me to contribute. My teaching duties have varied across countries, roles, and disciplines, but my commitment to education has not changed or wavered. It's the way I choose to serve. You must find your own way. If you would like some help getting started, I invite you to come talk to me; I'm easy enough to find.

You are here today because you are gifted, hardworking, and above all, lucky. You may have studiously advanced a natural talent for computer science, or developed a work ethic to shame mere mortals, or cultivated a sense of humor based on an Assistant Dean that shall remain... named Mark. But in this chaotic universe you were one butterfly wing's flap from being born in a place without access to clean water, without gender equality, without schools, without Twitter, or without some of the things that made you, you.

Service is a way of respecting that blind vale. A way to show others the clearer path through the woods that you made, or, more often, that someone going before had shown you. Go build a world less governed by blind chance.

The next few days will be a time of celebration and making up for several years of lost sleep. I want to encourage you, at some point, to consider how you intend to give back to the world that has allowed you so many opportunities. How might you help those with less devoted parents, less amazing friends, less economic advantage, or maybe just those poor souls laboring under the false impression that an n2 sort algorithm is "good enough".

Go. Enjoy. By all means, flush your TLB. But then it's really time to get back to work.

14 May 2016

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